In our Western culture, appearance is an issue that most people struggle with. The discussion surrounding ideal body image is flooded with concerns about eating disorders, as well as mental health issues that are present because of these body image issues. Society dictates our every move when it comes to our appearance, ranging from what we weigh to what we wear. People have begun to judge their self-worth on something that they read out of a magazine article. While it may be assumed that women are the only ones who deal with these issues, this is simply not the case. True, women are told that skinnier is better, but men are shown that they need to be in the running to compete for the next Mr. Olympia competition to be found attractive by their peers. Ideal weight and body type issues affect both men and women negatively, leading to unhealthy lifestyles and eating behaviors.
Gender roles play a huge factor in the way individuals in Western culture view themselves. The media portrays the ideal man or women in numerous ways, from dolls to television shows. Fatema Mernissi writes about her experience in a New York fashion store, where the sales associate explains to her that she cannot buy clothes there because she is not what society views as the norm, stating that “Size 4 and 6 are the norm” (234). Even in our shopping malls, we are shown that we are not good enough unless we fit the mold that our culture has made for us. The issue of a public acceptable perception is not reserved for the women in our culture. When you go to the store and look at the toys section, you will notice that the superhero’s, who are typically geared towards little boys, are not simply in shape, but are overly muscular. This superhero stereotype is transferred into an issue for adult males, as we see the movies about these superheroes, where the men look as though they have been pumped full of steroids to achieve this ideal body (TIME). Everywhere we look, we see the perfect body, and turn that into self-loathing because we look differently.
Unhealthy lifestyles and eating behaviors are strongly correlated with the way women view their bodies. We live in a culture where it is typical to see women refrain from eating certain foods, and sometimes, and food at all, because they do not look the way society tells them they should. In any make up store, you can find a plethora of items that allow you to completely alter the appearance for a person’s face. While growing up, I saw girls wearing make up to express themselves artistically. Now, we see girls who wear make up and apply it a certain way so that they can make their cheek bones protrude or make their nose narrower. It is a way to make their face ideal for society. The same is true in their clothing choices. Mernissi recalls an associate expressing to her that people working in the fashion industry may become unemployed if they do not fit the perception that their workplace has set forth, regarding their weight (235). The reality is that some of these women are losing more than a job, they are losing their lives! Eating disorders have become a way for women to control their weight. Instead of dieting, they eat far less than what they need, or they binge on food and then purge it later so that they are not gaining weight. Lake discusses the presence of eating disorders in Western culture from the aspect of a non-westerner entering the culture. Women who integrate into this culture from a non-western culture are increasing in numbers for eating disorders because they are “assimilating host society norms and values” in an attempt to achieve the ideal body in Western culture. In other countries, women refrain from eating certain foods because of physical pains that are caused to them by consuming those foods. In Western culture, women refrain eating certain foods to obtain this ideal body image (Lake).
Body perception and image issues are not reserved for women only. Studies have shown that men are affected by perception issues at just as high of a rate as women and adolescent boys are affected by image issues at a higher rate than their female counterparts (TIME). It is common for people to assume that if body image is being discussed, it is because women are going to extremes to be as skinny as possible so that they fit what society says they should look like. However, men go to extremes that are equally as dangerous in an attempt to look like the men we see in action movies. As the actors we see on the screen become bigger and more muscular, there is a significant decrease in the satisfaction of real life men with their bodies (TIME). Men are turning to alternatives, such as anabolic steroids, in an attempt to look like what they see on the movie and television screens. “Up to 4 million Americans – nearly all of them male – have tried steroids at some point” (TIME). These numbers, although high, are not all that surprising, considering how much of an affect social stigmas have on people. Men suffer from these body image issues in a different form, muscle dysmorphia, where they feel like they never look big enough to satisfy themselves. These issues, without doubt, come from this unrealistic bar that has been set in society on what anyone should look like, regardless of gender.
When you look in magazines, in movies, and even on book covers, you see a woman who looks like she could be competing in the next Miss America pageant, and more often than not, she is paired with a man who looks like Mr. Universe. It is blatantly obvious that these are the images that people are molding themselves after. Unfortunately, to obtain these ideal bodies, people are turning to dangerous methods, such as eating disorders or steroid use, to make themselves look the way society wants them to. These issues are real, and they are potentially life threatening, to people who are attempting to transform into the ideal body. Society must understand that until we as a culture change what we think makes someone beautiful, people will continue to practice these methods.
Just as in Mernissi’s story, we judge women and men on their outer appearance. This isn’t different from any society anywhere or during any time through out history. What is different today, is that we let the media influence our idea’s of “normal” to base our decisions on. Even more disturbing about this is that we accept it. We accept the fact that all women should look like manikins when they put clothes on. Society expects men to have broad shoulders, a six pack, and a full head of hair. Although we refuse to talk about it, the media is changing the way men feel they need to look as well as women. Both sexes are under attack from society to fit into the perfect image. We are pushing ourselves so far, that we are on the brink of being unhealthy.
Everywhere you look from television, to magazines, to billboards, we are all influenced by some source of media of what the “social standard” is. Specific celebrities are chosen to be the face of companies to advertise the social norm. [This is pushing women in a direction where they are developing eating disorders, as well as having a low self-esteem, and even depression.] People are even willing to have surgery to become more like their favorite celebrities. We don’t just stop with personal appearance, we go as far as having to wear exactly what the social norm dictates. “The norm is everywhere, my dear, … big department stores go by the norm.” Mernissi was told this while shopping for clothes (235).
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De Man, P. (2013). Blindness and insight: Essays in the rhetoric of contemporary criticism. Routledge.